Women’s Trauma and Opera
Words by Kate Hamori
Content Warning: This article contains material relating to sexual assault, domestic violence, death, misogyny, and mental illness.
For many years, trauma was defined as “an event that is outside the range of human experience.” But in reality, trauma was never as uncommon as we would have liked to believe. In the U.S., one in five women has experienced sexual assault in her lifetime, while one in four women has experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner.
The alarmingly familiar experience of women’s trauma is indeed reflected in the operatic repertory. According to French philosopher Catherine Clément, “In the operas of the nineteenth century, almost all heroines are victims, persecuted by men […] Humiliated, hunted, driven mad, burnt alive, buried alive, stabbed, committing suicide—Violetta, Sieglinde, Lucia, Brünnhilde, Aida, Norma, Mélisande, Liù, Butterfly, Isolde, Lulu, and so many others…”1Catherine Clément, “Through Voices, History” in Siren Songs: Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Opera, ed. Mary Ann Smart (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 17-28.
One of the most common manifestations of women’s trauma in opera is the construction of “madwomen.” These “hysteric” characters are driven to the extremes of their vocal register in mad scenes and rage arias engineered to surprise, delight, horrify, or otherwise engage an audience.
This sensationalization of women’s trauma in opera is an artistic reflection of what Michel Foucault called “the hysterization of women’s bodies: a threefold process whereby the feminine body was analyzed […] as being thoroughly saturated with sexuality; whereby it was integrated into the sphere of medical practices, by reason of a pathology intrinsic to it.”2Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 104. In other words, women’s post-traumatic pain and suffering was framed as an expression of sexual excess, which was then pathologized and literally put on display. (For example, consider Jean-Marie Charcot’s lectures at the Salpêtrière in nineteenth-century Paris.)
We now know that women don’t respond to traumatic experiences with the hysteria of a madwoman; rather, they (we) respond with mechanisms like dissociative episodes, involuntary flashbacks, and traumatic reenactments—the same responses that plague the majority of traumatized individuals, regardless of gender.
Despite these advances in the field of psychology, we are still performing the same operatic mad scenes that exploit and sensationalize women’s post-traumatic “hysteria” for the sake of dramatic effect. The aim of a mad scene is not to accurately or even compassionately represent a post-traumatic response—it is to entertain an audience that is likely to see the scene from a detached perspective. After all, truly and actively bearing witness to a traumatized woman’s testimony is difficult and painful, two words generally not associated with the entertainment industry.
We may be able to bring a sense of traumatic truth to these operas by modifying the staging to more accurately and healthily reflect women’s trauma. For example, a 2018 production of Bizet’s Carmen at Florence’s Teatro del Maggio Musicale presented an alternate ending in which Carmen kills Don José, rather than the other way around. Cristiano Chiarot, then superintendent of the theater’s foundation, voiced his support for the new ending in an email interview: “At a time when our society is having to confront the murder of women, how can we dare to applaud the killing of a woman?”
Opera was never meant to be a static art form. It has often grown and evolved with the times, making significant revisions to existing works both during and after the composer’s lifetime. Rather than perpetuating the systematic oppression of women on stage in the name of “operatic authenticity,” we should continue to encourage growth and evolution in the operatic repertory, modifying performance practices to more accurately and compassionately reflect the experiences of women and other minority groups that have been subjected to systematic abuse and trauma.